True royalty among garden plants, peonies feature blossoms that can take your breath away. Most types flourish in areas with long, cold winters, leading folks to the mistaken conclusion that they're not suitable for the South. But while it's true that peonies do generally perform best in the Upper and Middle South, quite a few tolerate the mild winters and hot summers of the Lower South, blooming as far south as Jackson, Mississippi; Montgomery, Alabama; and Columbus, Georgia.
The two basic types are herbaceous peonies, which die to the ground in late fall, and tree peonies (really shrubs), which form woody trunks. Both are from Chinese species: herbaceous peonies are chiefly from P. lactiflora, tree types from P. suffruticosa. Most garden peonies are hybrids.
Peonies dominate many a flower border in late springthey're great companions for iris, old roses, poppies (Papaver), dianthus, and early daylilies (Hemerocallis). Remember that they grow to a good size over time and may get too big for a small border. When the site is properly prepared and plants are carefully selected and given proper care, all are extremely long lived, bringing beauty to your garden for as long as you live.
Herbaceous peonies. Perennials. Need varying degrees of winter chill to bloom well. Established plants need no dividing and resent disturbance. If you must transplant them, move them during their dormancy in fall. Transplants may take a year or two to begin blooming again.
Plants grow 34 ft. tall and wide. Large, deep green, attractively divided leaves are an effective background for the spectacular spring or early summer flowers and look good throughout the summer. Depending on the selection, blossoms can be anywhere from 2 in. to 10 in. across; colors range from pure white through cream and rose to red. Many have a perfume reminiscent of old-fashioned roses.
Herbaceous peonies are classified by flower form. Depending on which expert you consult, there are anywhere from three to eight categories; here, we'll list four.
In the South, early-blooming peonies tend to outperform those that flower latebut all the selections listed below are proven performers in our region. If you have room for only one peony, choose 'Festiva Maxima' (double white flowers with red flecks), a Southern heirloom plant that blooms dependably throughout our region. Other recommended selections include the following.
'Belle Center'. Early semidouble. Deep, mahogany-red blossoms with yellow stamens. To 30 in.
'Belvidere Princess'. Mid to late semidouble. Lightly fragrant, soft pink. To 28 in.
'Big Ben'. Early double. Fragrant, dark red blooms. To 38 in. tall and wide.
'Do Tell'. Midseason Japanese type. Pink outer petals surround rose-pink and red staminodes. To 34 in.
'Edulis Superba'. Very early double. Fragrant, rose-pink blossoms. Very floriferous; good cut flower. To 36 in.
'Elsa Sass'. Late double. Large, very fragrant white flowers with creamy yellow centers. Strong stems make it excellent for cut flowers. Vigorous grower. To 26 in.
'Flix Crousse'. Late double. Fragrant, ruby-red blossoms. Very floriferous; superb cut flower. To 34 in.
'Festiva Maxima'. Early double. Fragrant, pure white flowers flecked with red. Very floriferous. Long-lived, dependable bloomer, even in the Lower South. To 34 in.
'Kansas'. Midseason double. Long-lasting, red blossoms on strong, upright stems. Very reliable bloomer. To 36 in.
'Karl Rosenfield'. Midseason double. Mildly fragrant, velvety crimson flowers. Floriferous; great cut flower. To 36 in.
'Kelway's Glorious'. Midseason double. Huge, very fragrant, white flowers with creamy centers. Strong stems; very floriferous. To 34 in.
'Krinkled White'. Early, single. White with yellow stamens. To 32 in. Good cut flower.
'Lake of Silver'. Midseason double. Pink that fades to silver on edge. To 34 in. Heat tolerant.
'Magenta Gem'. Midseason semidouble. Strong pink. To 24 in. tall and 36 in. wide.
'Minnie Shaylor'. Midseason semidouble. Light pink blossoms fade to pure white. Blooms over a long period. To 36 in.
'Monsieur Jules Elie'. Midseason double. Giant-size, moderately fragrant blossoms in light pink shading to deeper rose. Good cut flower. To 36 in.
'Mrs. Franklin D. Roosevelt'. Midseason double. Fragrant blossoms with shell-pink outer petals surrounding a peach-colored center. Floriferous; excellent cut flower. Vigorous grower to 34 in.
'Nippon Beauty'. Late Japanese type. Deep garnet blooms with gold-tipped staminodes. Floriferous and vigorous. To 38 in.
'Philippe Rivoire'. Midseason double. Fragrant, deep crimson blossoms. Good cut flower. To 30 in.
'Sarah Bernhardt'. Midseason double. Fragrant, rose-pink blossoms with silver-edged petals. Very reliable. Excellent cut flower. To 34 in.
'Scarlett O'Hara'. Early, single red flowers with bright yellow stamens. To 36 in. tall. Heat tolerant.
'Sea Shell'. Midseason single. Lightly fragrant, pink blossoms. Excellent cut flower. To 3 ft.
'Shirley Temple'. Very early double. Very fragrant, pale pink blossoms age to blush white. Floriferous and vigorous. To 34 in.
Three species are also recommended for the South. P. tenuifolia, called fernleaf peony, hails from southeastern Europe. It reaches 112212 ft. high and wide and has dark green, exceedingly finely cut leaves. Deep red, single flowers on short stems seem to be sitting on the foliage. From Asia come P. obovata and P. japonica, both only 1122 ft. high and wide. P. obovata has deep green foliage that is pale gray-green and slightly hairy beneath. It produces cup-shaped, single white to purplish red blossoms with yellow stamens; the seed heads that follow split open to reveal red receptacles holding metallic blue seeds. P. japonica is similar but with hairier leaf undersides and yellow-centered white flowers that appear a little earlier than those of P. obovata.
Tree peonies. Deciduous shrubs. Slow growth to 35 ft. tall and eventually as wide, with handsome, blue-green to bronzy green, divided leaves. Single to double, typically very large flowers (to 1012 in.) appear in spring. These peonies seldom show their full potential until they have spent several years in your garden, but the spectacular results are worth the wait. Small, recently grafted, packaged plants are sometimes available, usually sold only by color (red, pink, white, yellow, purple). These are a good buy if you are patientthey'll take two or three years longer to reach flowering size than older, container-grown or field-grown plants costing much more.
Catalogs offer named selections of Japanese origin in white and shades of pink, red, and purple; blossoms are generally semidouble. More recent and more expensive are orange, yellow, and copper-colored hybrids resulting from crosses of P. suffruticosa with P. delavayi and P. lutea; these bear semidouble blooms that face outward and upward.
Tree peonies require less winter chill than herbaceous peonies. The large flowers are fragile and should be sheltered from strong winds. Prune only to remove faded flowers and any dead wood.
Itoh peonies. Itoh, or intersectional peonies, are crosses between herbaceous peonies and tree peonies. They behave like herbaceous peonies by going dormant with no stem visible in winter. However, the foliage is recognizable as that of a tree peony. Best of all, they put on a show for as long as six weeks as new buds open and replace the faded blooms. Flowers are huge, like their tree peony parent, but do not need staking. Look for yellow 'Bartzella', in addition to others in shades of pink and coral.